Cover image for visiting Washington, D.C. post

As Seen on T.V.?

Before visiting Washington D.C., all Kim and I knew about it was from what we’d seen on the news and on the TV show, House of Cards.

None of our friends seemed to know much either. They’d all been to New York City and many had traveled to Chicago and Boston too, but just about nobody had visited Washington, D.C.

So we traveled there oblivious but open-minded and optimistic.

And we left…

…happy to have visited but with no desire to go back anytime soon.

Here’s what we discovered: the good, the bad, and the unusual of visiting Washington, D.C., along with our favorite and most-recommended experiences.

Outline

The Good of Visiting Washington, D.C.

Comparing 10 dollar bill to the national treasury in D.C.
It’s a trip to see all the buildings we’d seen thousands of times in photos, on TV, and even on bank notes, in real life.

Chris admiring an old building in Washington, D.C.

✔︎ We’re Impressed

Even though we’re not much into history or architecture, we couldn’t help but feel we were in an important place when we visited the National Mall. The two-mile-long open lawn and all the monuments and buildings around it truly impressed us.

Nearly as impressive, and way less touristed, was Embassy Row. Along this parade of embassies on Massachusetts Ave, it seemed each country was competing to outdo the next with a bigger, more palatial mansion. Definitely put it on your D.C. to-do list.

Row of Capital Bikeshare bikes downtown
We got around D.C. super efficiently using these bikes.
Pedestrians on the National Mall and Washington Monument
You can also rent dockless scooters, like this guy speeding towards us along the National Mall.

✔︎ Wheely Friendly

Kim and I explored the crap out of the capital using the Capital Bikeshare program. We zig-zagged over 60km in twenty-plus rides during our the days there.

Biking was the most efficient way to get around. The city’s mostly flat and compact, the roads are in decent shape, traffic isn’t bad, and it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk or the road.

Plus the app was easy to use, the stations were everywhere, the bikes were in good condition, and the price, $17 for three days, was reasonable.

Instead of biking, many—MANY—others who were either cooler or lazier than us got around on different types of two-wheeled vehicles:

Dockless electric scooters.

Lyft, Bird, Lime, Skip, and probably a handful of other 4-letter-word companies all rent out scooters there for about $1 a ride plus a nominal fee per mile. Give them a try if you’re too cool or lazy to bike.

Strip of rowhouses in D.C.
All the multicolored rowhouses in D.C. make it fun to explore.

✔︎ Explorable

DC is compact (we never had to cycle more than 25 minutes from one part of the city to the other), safe (as far as we could tell), and easy to find your way in (the city streets are laid out with numbers and letters made it impossible for us to get lost).

The endless row houses and the odd statue here and there kept us from ever getting bored as we peddled around by bike and there were commercial strips all over that were enjoyable to get off our bikes and wander along.

Street art of Prince pointing at Kim holding a Ben's Chili Bowl half-smoke
Prince also wants you to check out a half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl
Chris holding a Stachowski's pastrami sandwich
“How do I fit this thing in my mouth?”
Kim struggling to eat her pastrami sandwich.
Kim trying and failing to get a bite of the sandwich.

✔︎ Informal eats

Ben’s Chili Bowl deserves its legendary reputation and merits a visit for a D.C. specialty half-smoke hot dog.

That said, our favorite informal D.C. dine was elsewhere: Stachowski’s Market

Unlike Ben’s Chili Bowl, Stachowski’s isn’t a well-known D.C. landmark. If it weren’t for a guy we chatted with at Thip Khao’s happy hour, we never would’ve found it. It’s tucked away in a residential corner of ritzy Georgetown, and there’s nothing special about it from the outside—nor on the inside, for that matter.

But their pastrami sandwich was very special. The $15.99 beautiful beast heaved with 1.5 pounds of the most delicious, fatty, and tender pastrami we’ve ever tasted. Don’t miss it if you’re visiting Washington, D.C. But definitely bring a friend to share it with.

Food and beer from Thip Khao's happy hour
Just seeing this photo of Thip Khao’s happy hour makes me happy. Don’t miss the pig’s ears (in the basket).

✔︎ Laotian happy hour

Further down we’re going to complain about D.C.’s “happy hours,” but Thip Khao‘s was an exceptional exception.

It started unhappily for us, though.

On Thip Khao’s website, they neglect to mention that their happy hour only applies to those who sit at their eight-seat bar and not at the tables. Not knowing this, we sat at a table Kim had reserved for us. By the time the waiter told us we couldn’t enjoy happy hour from our seats, the bar had filled up. Disappointed and deceived, we went elsewhere.

Luckily we returned the next day. Making up for lost time, we stuffed ourselves silly with $3 draft Lao beer and $5 generously-sized and Laotian-flavored appetizers like fried pig ears (my new favorite bar snack), chicken wings, skewers, and noodle salad.

Guys playing drums at Meridian Hill park
On Sundays, head to Meridian Hill Park to enjoy the public drum performance.
Costumed guy and crowd at the finish line of the D.C. High Heel Drag Race
This racer seems disappointed their wings couldn’t carry them to victory at the High Heel Drag Race.

✔︎ There’s always something going on

No matter when you visit Washington, D.C., there’s going to be some special event going on that’s worth checking out.

In our case, it was the 32nd annual High Heel Drag Queen Race.

Like your typical drag race, it’s a straightaway road race.

Unlike your typical drag race, the racers are high-heeled men dressed in (elaborate) drag.

And, as is always the case when huge gaggles of gay guys gather together, it was a rambunctious, noisy, and fun-for-everyone event.

Definitely Google, “what’s going on in D.C. this week” to see what’s going on while you’re in town.

Kim looking at the Washington Monument from the Old Post Office tower.
Kim takes in the views from the Old Post Office Pavilion.
View down the street to the Capital
The view of U.S. Capitol from the Old Post Office Pavilion.

✔︎ Lookout

The top of D.C’s Old Post Office Pavilion is a good spot to see the city from above and get your bearings. We’re glad we took our friend Caroline’s advice to go.

It costs nothing and stands in the middle of busy downtown attractions but, oddly enough, there was nobody else there when we went in the middle of a sunny weekday afternoon.

Maybe it’s due to the poorly-marked entrance. To find it, go through the doors beside the Starbucks around to the back side of the Trump Hotel.


The Bad of Visiting Washington, D.C.

Row of guys in suites walking along D.C. Street
D.C. is full of people who are there strictly for business.

✗ Nobody’s Home

D.C. reminded me of my onetime “home” of Geneva, Switzerland. People don’t move there to live; they move there to make money and further their careers, then get out.

So while we appreciated the diversity and all the different accents—both foreign and American—around town, we felt the city lacked any sort of distinct personality.

On a related note, here’s a game to play with a friend: Go to Union Market on a weekend and see who can count the most different universities that proud alumni are wearing apparel from.

✗ Unfriendly

Let’s hope the politicians in D.C. serve their constituents better than restaurant staff there serve their diners because our waiters and waitresses stunk.

People on the streets weren’t much nicer. They avoided eye contact and did their best to pretend nobody else in the world existed.

✗ Cars rule

Every step we took crossing D.C.’s roads was a frightful one because drivers don’t give a crap about pedestrians.

Technically, they’re supposed to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks. Practically, not a single car even hinted at slowing down for us. If anything they sped up to show us who’s boss.

But we did witness one heroic event that hinted change may be in the air.

Kind of like the man who stood before the tanks at Tiananmen Square, a lady in a power suit took a courageous stance by bravely striding onto the crosswalk of a busy street by the Smithsonian and daring the cars to hit her. She didn’t even flinch as the cars barely squealed to a stop in time and honked in displeasure. We were inspired.

…But not inspired enough to follow her lead. We waited until the coast was clear to cross.

Kim holding a Natty Bo beer in D.C.
Even the cheapest beers like this “Natty Bo” aren’t that cheap in D.C.

✗ It’s expensive

Everything in D.C. costed at least the same as back home in Vancouver, but in US dollars instead of Canadian dollars, meaning a 30% premium. On top of that is the 10% D.C. tax and tip.

Even Happy Hour wasn’t cheap in D.C. A typical “deal” was $5 for a 14-ounce draught beer. Prices like that make owners happy, not drinkers.

✗ A Dulles pain in the butt

Getting to and from Washington’s Dulles International Airport sucks. It sucks time and money.

A ride with Uber or Lyft costs just under $50 and takes around 50 minutes. We took public transit, which was cheaper ($10 each) but took over an hour and a half.


The Unusual of Visiting Washington, D.C.

Close-up of crosswalk timer at a corner in D.C.
Prepare to spend a good chunk of your time in D.C. waiting for crazy long crosswalk timers to count down.

?Stuck on the corners

Nobody jaywalks in D.C. because A) As we already mentioned, drivers there hate pedestrians and B) You never know where the cars are coming from because of the indecipherable traffic patterns. There was no rhyme or reason to where cars were going to come from, so we played it safe and waited for the walk symbol.

And did we ever wait!

D.C. has the longest crosswalk countdowns we’d ever seen. In D.C. the countdowns often exceeded 60 seconds, quadruple what we’re used to in Vancouver.

To make light of our time stuck waiting for traffic lights, we made a game of finding the highest countdown in town. Our record was 89 seconds. Beat that.

Some nice rowhouses in D.C.
Streets like this one in Georgetown make D.C. feel like a mid-sized town.

?It doesn’t feel big

Aside from the National Mall and Embassy row, D.C. feels more like a sleepy mid-sized city than a globally-important metropolis.

It may have something to do with the law restricting buildings from being no more than 20 feet higher than the street in front of it is wide. But then again some European cities don’t have big buildings and feel significantly more vibrant.

The Barbie pond Halloween display
The Halloween display at Barbie Pond.

?Barbie Pond

Barbie Pond is in front of a residential rowhouse by Northwest Q and 15th streets. There, a local with creativity and Barbie dolls to spare exhibits a constantly-changing public art display.

When we passed by on October 29 we discovered a macabre display of flying barbie-heads-with-bat-wings, zombie Barbies, and skulls.

Depending on when you go in the year and what the political hot topic of the day is, who knows what the Barbies will be up to. Make a quick detour to find out.

D.C. Firetruck speeding down a street
Speeding firetrucks are an hourly sight in D.C., but we couldn’t figure out why.

?The firefighters are busy

Not an hour passed in D.C. without a fire truck blazing by us with its sirens ablaze.

Where those firefighters are racing towards… we have no idea. We never saw any signs of fire or any accidents.

Maybe the firefighters are just bored and enjoy making a ruckus on joyrides. That would explain why the other cars seemed to have lost respect for the sirens and barely moved out of the way for them.

Street art we saw while Visiting Washington, D.C. with a couple guys below

?Whole Foods for the homeless?

D.C. is being taken over by transient yuppies so fast that the previous inhabitants haven’t had a chance to get out of their way. There are gleaming new buildings with Whole Foods and Warby Parker outlets right next to run-down strips of liquor stores and pawn shops.

While gentrification is happening in cities all over the world, nowhere have we seen stronger and more unusual contrasts than in D.C.


Make Your Own Impression

As we wrote at the outset of this post, we’re glad we visited Washington, D.C. but we wouldn’t want to go back anytime soon.

You might feel differently if you’re big into politics or museums. Check it out, try not to miss the highlights we recommended, and let us know what you think in the comments.

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2 comments

  1. That pastrami sand-which looks awesome. I would like to highly recommend the Holocaust Memorial. It is free to enter but highly recommended to reserve a spot online in advance.

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